Sometimes, food becomes our anchor when all else fails.
I helped my five-year-old get on the school bus, waved to her with shaking hands and nervously watched the bus carry her away. She looked fairly confident and contended in her bus seat, but I was torn and puzzled. The separation anxiety was unmercifully rattling my brain. For the first time since her birth, my daughter is being cared for by strangers.
She is off to her first school day. I walked back into the house distracted! In an attempt to regroup, I found myself pulling my tablet and heading to the kitchen. I hysterically browsed the recipe of a forsaken childhood pastry “Feteer al Malak“ or Archangel Micheal.
Despite the miles and years that separate me from my country of origin, this childhood pastry unexpectedly resurfaced, for a reason. Archangel Michael Pastry is a light vegan alternative to rich eggy Brioche. It is one of these esoteric traditions of the Christian Coptic minority in Egypt, that I grew up watching my grandma dearly keep up.
Second to the church of Jerusalem, the Coptic Orthodox Church is the oldest Christian church. Similar to many religious communities around the world, the Copt Egyptian one has developed, over centuries, peculiar rituals that have impacted their cuisine. The tradition goes that the matriarch of every family bakes this vegan pastry to honor Archangel Michael, the most revered angel in Christian scripture. The matriarch would faithfully entrust st. Michael with the protection of the family’s children.
Given its vegan nature, usually, this pastry is baked during one of many periods of fasting in the Orthodox faith. Legend has it that prior to baking the dough when it is left overnight to proof the yeast, St. Michael marks it with his sword to bless it. Typically, my grandma used to bake this pastry a few times a year. Whenever a family member was sick, applying for a new
job or taking important tests, she was there kneading, shaping and baking. The most beautiful facet of this ritual is that she was sharing these simple yet delicious pastries with her Muslim neighbors as well as Christians, knowing how equally venerated Archangel Michael is in the Islamic faith.
My grandma never wrote down her recipe, but I luckily stumbled on a recipe posted online. I took a deep breath and went ahead with my “mise en place”. The recipe called for basic ingredients that are omnipresent in the pantry of any casual baker. The scene was convenient to experiment. The common sense of a home baker comes to the rescue when the recipe is uncertain. Daringly, I altered the quantity of some ingredients and added some flavorings. The process of making the dough was effectively healing, relaxing, and meditative.
While kneading the dough by hand, I gradually released the tension. And in whispering prayers to St. Michael, my soul found peace. No wonder my grandma often found a good reason to bake these beauties. I opted to leave the dough overnight in the fridge to develop the tangy deep flavor of yeast.
The following morning was marked with a slightly less intense goodbye to my little one. I energetically headed again to my kitchen to finish what I started. I punched the fresh and fragrant dough, to let the air escape and then formed it into balls. With floured fingers, I artfully shaped the crosses and with the assistance of an oily brush, I glued them to the domed bread. I Let the bread balls comfortably rise again in the dark while I sipped my cardamom coffee in front of a bright window. In a preheated oven I popped them in, after egg-washing their smooth surface. I proudly watched the bread rising and nostalgically inhaled the tantalizing smell wafting out. So many precious childhood moments in my grandparent’s house suddenly flashed.
From that day on, this pastry has become a signature one. I bake it at the outset of every school year, in trying times, and at every significant milestone in my kids’ lives. What makes it even a merrier tradition, is sharing the pastry and its story with friends from all walks of life.
Archangel Michael: Feteer Al Malak: فطير الملاك
Recipe adapted by chef Hanaa Fahmy
Makes 12 to 15 medium disks
1 kg or 8 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons of sugar, separated
Pinch of salt
2 cups water, separated
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar
2 tablespoons instant yeast
- Proof the yeast. Add two tablespoons of yeast and one tablespoon of sugar to one cup of warm water. Stir well and let the yeast proof in a warm dark place until it gets frothy and foamy.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt in a sizeable deep bowl.
- Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add a cup of oil and vinegar. Using your hands to mix in thoroughly the oil into the flour mixture until the latter looks like wet sand.
- Dilute 3/4 cup of sugar in one cup of water.
- Turn on at medium speed a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add the yeast mixture gradually to the flour and then add the water sugar mixture. Turn the mixer off when a sticky, soft dough comes together.
- Brush the dough as well as a clean deep bowl with oil. Cover the bowl with a clean towel or plastic wrap and let the dough rest in a dark place.
- When the dough doubles in volumes, let it rest in the fridge overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 270°.
- Start forming the disks (115 grams each). Twist thin threads of the dough to form the crosses. Sprinkle them with cinnamon to make the cross shape/motifs pop up when baked.
- Brush the disks with oil to give them a shiny golden look when baked.
- Let the disks rest again for 20 minutes.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature with jam, cheese or zaatar.
- Letting the dough rest overnight, help the yeast to develop a pleasant flavor and aroma when baked.
- This dough is so forgiving and versatile. Get creative with trying different savory and sweet fillings. You can decrease the amount of sugar to 1/2 and sprinkle it with za’atar. Other possible variations for filling are chocolate chips, coconut flakes, and raisins.